The Life of Alexander Graham Bell

The father of the telephone. One of the most influential men in history, he is the man behind the first working telephone. A scientist, engineer, inventor, technologist, businessman- call him what you like, he will answer.

Early Years

Alexander Bell was born 3rd March 1847 in the west end of Edinburgh, to parents Alexander Melville Bell and Eliza Grace. The middle child of the three sons of the couple, he was born into what was a very wealthy family. Mother Eliza was a professional pianist, and would often operate as a teacher. At 11 years old he was granted permission by his father to formally add a middle name to his full name. His two brothers had three names and Alexander was keen to follow suit.

Alexander Melville Bell was a very prominent researcher and professor. A teacher of elocution to the deaf, he developed a system known as ‘Visual Speech’, which is a type of alphabet for the deaf and was a revelation, still in use today. He was an expert, and a teacher, in the fields of phonetics, particularly articulation phonetics. Subsequently Alexander Jnr, along with his brothers, was very well educated in these fields from a young age. It was a dominant presence in the Bell household it would seem.

It should come as little surprise then, at just 12-years-old, Alexander Graham Bell was to create his first invention- a dehusking machine, in 1859. It was designed to clean wheat grains and remove the husks, and was a success. There is no trace of the invention today, though it presents a good insight into the raw talent that he was blessed with. This year is extremely important in the future life of the inventor – it was also in this year that his mother lost her hearing, leading the young Alexander to gain a great interest inthe deaf community.

The teenage Alexander Bell would doubtlessly have had a good degree of confusion and frustration over the matter. Unsurprisingly however, Alec would react creatively. It should be expected- the early dynamism of Alexander was clearly displayed in his earlier entrepreneurship project (the dehusking machine). At 16 years old he, along with his younger brother, would attempt to create a talking robot. Although the two created a respectable model and managed to produce faint sounds from the robot through a windpipe, they never took the device seriously and the project would be abandoned as the two attended higher education.

Alexander would go on to study at the Royal High of Edinburgh, and later the University of Edinburgh. Unsurprisingly, phonetics was his choice of study. Another great influence of his was another family member named Alexander- his grandfather, Alexander Snr+. Moving for a short period to live with him in London, a keen Alexander Jnr would greatly benefit from the experience of learning with his knowledgeable granddad.

This is a very rare family photo of the young bells taken in Edinburgh sometime in 1856. Young Alexander is on the far right, alongside brothers Edward and Melville, and parents Eliza and Alexander Snr.

The older but younger Alexander

Made In Canada

In his early 20s, Andrew did not have a great time of it. Both of his brothers, Edward and Melville, would die from tuberculosis, and his father would also fall very ill. It was the early 1870s and the Bell family now found themselves in poor financial state. There can no doubt that the tragic deaths of Edward and Melville would have also racked up plenty of bills, along with father Alexander unable to work, and mother Eliza being the full-time family carer, the Bell bank account would begin to run dry.

Alexander Snr and Eliza at this point, worried about Alexander Jnr being next to be struck down by tuberculosis, decided to move the now family-of-three to Canada- Brantford, Ontario, to be precise. Another significant contributing factor to the move was that Alexander Snr had been informed by friends in the area that he would get better there. So many reasons contributed to the families move to Canada, and Bell had rung in Scotland for the final time.

The health of Alexander Snr did improve dramatically upon their first couple of years in Canada. They had purchased a farm, Tutelo Heights, on the outskirts of the town. In 1872 things would step up a notch as Alexander Snr would receive an invitation to present his system of Visible Speech to the Boston University School of Oratory. Instead though, he insisted his son do the job. As previously mentioned, Alexander was well trained from a very young age by his father, so he just about knew the system aswell as the man who created it.

Alexander Jnr accepted this invitation, and quickly went on to be offered a teaching role, and also accepted- becoming a Professor of Vocal Physiology and Elocution at the University. Such was the success of the System of Visible Speech, that Andrew would spent much of his early time in the United States teaching it, largely across Massachusetts.

As the 1870s wore on, Alexander established a workshop in a rented Boston facility. This would be his lab. He didn’t always have a lot of money, but the majority of his work was focused on the progression of the deaf, some would even say the elimination of deafness (which he believed possible). Subsequently he was supported financially by several prominent Boston individuals- most of whom had deaf close-relatives.


The Invention of the Telephone

In 1876 Alexander Bell would apply for a patent. A patent was a legal documentation in those days, given as both a permit to sell an invention, aswell as proof of ownership of the invention. The license he was given was for “the method of, and apparatus for, transmitting vocal or other sound telegraphically… by causing electrical undulations, similar in form to the vibrations of the air accompanying the said vocal or other sound”. Though Alexander Bell was far from the only one working on a sound transmitting device.

The idea of this kind of device had been around for a good few decades. Italian Antonio Meucci, for example, would develop a speech transmitting device in the 1850s, however it is claimed his device was stolen by Western Union- who in turn said it was lost. While a man named Elisha Gray has also laid claims to the being the inventor. His own device had certain parts that he claimed were stolen by Bell (though this was dismissed in court in the late 1890s). So there was definitely a standard there, that Alexander Bell could have built upon- but there a standard for everything, its nothing to discredit the Edinburgh man with.

It was the previous year that Alexander Bell began working closely with the mechanic Thomas Watson, who acted as his assistant. They would produce a sound transmitting device, what was originally known as an acoustic telegraph. It was a device that was capable of this transmission through the use of vibrating metal needles in water. This water-device would be successful in transmitting sound, but not voice. Working on the project into early-1876, Alexander would develop a voice transmitting device.

He made his breakthrough after altering the electrical current (caused by the vibrating metal needles) on the sound transmitting device. Into the new device Alexander would say several words, which would be successfully heard by James Watson- who was in another room, on a separate second device. In August of the same year, Alexander and Mr Watson would do the same- though this time they would be five miles apart, a demonstration which was again conducted successfully.

Mr Watson, come here. I want to see you.

Alexander Graham Bell, First Words son the Telephone

Race for the Patent. Alexander Bell did have rivalries in his time and his main competition was from a man named Elisha Gray. The Illinois inventor had also created a water transmitting device, and he had filed a half-patent for it but it was rejected. On the morning of March 7th 1876, Alexander Bell was issued a patent for his device, just hours before one would be issued to Elisha Gray. Gray would claim that Alexander stole the idea of a liquid-based transmitter from him. The case was very complicated, but after a lengthy battle, Alexander won. Drawings of his device (prior to the time Gray claimed to begin working on his device) were proven by a presentation he had used them in. Alexander was awarded the patent, subsequently being again fully recognised as the inventor of the telephone.


However, the excited Alexander could not launch the device on the market immediately. First he had to try to make it work long-distance. Alexander still lived in Brentford, Canada, at this point, by the way. (Previously making the long journeys to and from Boston regularly, his lab would provide a second base there) It was at his home in Brentford where he would establish a 6-mile long wire running to the local telegraph office, with a receiver placed at either end. It was also successful, and Alexander even belted out god save the queen through the device. It was said to be heard crystal clear at the other side- much to the amazement of the watching audience.

Now it was ready to be launched, with the required patent already in place. Having been previously dismissed, with his toy, Alexander Graham Bell would launch the telephone into the market in the United States, with much pride no doubt. The American Bell Telephone Company was established in June 1877, predecessor to the limited Bell Patent Association. In the next 10 years the company would sell more than 400,000 telephones, all in the U.S. By the early 20th century there was more than 5 million in use. Incredibly the company is still in operation today and is one of the largest in the world. Its now called the American Telegraph and Telephone Company, better known as AT&T.

I have constructed a new apparatus operated by the human voice. I feel that I have at last struck the solution of a great problem, and the day is coming when telegraph wires will be laid on to houses just like water or gas- and friends converse with each other without leaving home.

Alexander Graham Bell (Letter to Father)
Alexander Bell with Thomas Watson

Other Inventions

Alexander Bell was far more than the father of the telephone, he created many other inventions in his lifetime- with most of these aimed at the progression of the deaf community or communications in general. These including an Audiometer (which was used for detecting hearing problems) and a Hydrofoil (which were extremely fast gliding boats). Alexander is fairly well known for the latter aswell as the telephone, and the Hydrofoil is recognised as being created by Bell, William Baldwin and wife Mabel. They had established the first glided hydrofoil while in Italy, though it could only reach a maximum of 30mph- but it would develop into the fastest boat in the world after eventually reaching speeds in excess of 80mph.

In September 1881 Alexander Bell briefly worked with the United States government on developing a device that would be capable of finding a bullet in the body of one of the presidents, James Garfield. He was shot in the lower back area and was still alive, so then it would have been a rushed project, but it can be assumed that Alexander would have already have had some sort of similar device to develop on in the first place.

The new device he created was called the metal detector. The circumstances sounds quite strange but it is all due to a lack of medical equipment, and the bullet proving impossible to find for the doctors. It was successful in finding the bullet, however it was too late- the president James Garfield would die from the infections received by the previous attempts to find the bullet (which included general poking and prodding).

Alexander could effectively also be considered the inventor of the cell phone. He created a wireless telephone in the early 1880s, that would be capable of transmitting conversations by the beam of light. It was called the Photophone, and Alexander proclaimed it to be the best invention he has ever made. Although a patent was made for it, it was never launched on the market- though was used as a standard for the creation of cell phones.

Alexander Bell and his Hydrofoil

(photo courtesy of the Guardian)


The Bell Clan

Alexander had married shortly after his invention of the telephone. It was to long-term partner Mabel Hubbard and they were together their whole lives, and Mabel was a key influence in his life and even acted as President of his this then new corporation (Bell Telephone). Mabel herself, much like others in the life of Alexander, was deaf- and had been so since the age of 5. The pair married in July 1877 and would remain so for the rest of their lives, purchasing a new family estate in Cambridge, Massachusetts, shortly after their wedding.

This relationship had a profound impact on the life of Alexander, who set a personal goal of restoring his wife’s hearing one way or another- and may have even begun working on the first telephone as a consequence. Mabel would die herself just months after the inventor. The couple would have four children in total. Daughters Marian Hubbard and Elsie-May would be their only survivors however, as the couples two sons- Edward and Robert, both died a birth.

Arising from French nobleman Gilbert La Fitz Bel, who was a supported of David I and gained lands in the Scottish borders, from his two daughters Alexander would be grandfather to eight children- and subsequently establish the ancient Bell Clan in the New World.

(photo courtesy of commons.wikipedea)

The Bell Legacy

The invention of the telephone and his subsequent creation of a new world of communication seen Bell receive countless awards. He would receive many medals, including the Albert Medal from the Society of Arts of London, the John Fritz Medal from the American Association of Engineering Societies,and the Edison Medal from the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. Alexander would accept various honorary degrees from universities in several different countries including the UK, the Untied States, Canada and Germany. .

In France he was awarded with the Voltage Prize and a bag of cash, along with being national worshipped as the official inventor of the telephone. Alexander was later also honoured with the Légion d’honneur (Legion of Honor) by the French president. While in Scotland Alexander featured on a £1 note that was released by the Royal Bank of Scotland in 1997 to mark the 150th anniversary of his birthday, while he was awarded the Freedom of the City in Edinburgh in 1919. In his second country, Canada, there is a popular Alexander Graham Bell History Site, and a National Bell Museum.

The Telephone inventor was one of the founders of the National Geographic Society, a club established by an elite group of academics and businessman- for their counterparts. Alexander Bell was key in this creation and subsequently served as its first president for nearly ten years, from 1897 to 1902. Today, one of the society’s most prestigious awards is named after him- the Alexander Graham Bell Medal, which is awarded to the individual with the most “exceptional contributions to geographic research”.

Aswell as being widely regarded as being in the top 10 greatest inventors in history by various different sources (and the no1 by the US Patent Office), and one of the most important people to ever live, he is also considered to be a national great of three different nations- his native Scotland and his adopted Canada and United States. Bell himself has never pledged any loyalties to nay nation in particular, and instead chose to embrace the idea of being a national son of three nations. He is subsequently regarded as one of the greatest Scots, Canadians and Americans.


Making as long distance phone-call in-front of an audience (Image courtesy of commonswikipedia.co.uk)

The Final Years

Alexander Bell suffered from diabetes since he was a child, and also had developed a major deficiency in Vitamin B12- this as well as his age (76) all contributed to his death at home on August 22nd 1922. He died in his bed at his estate near Baddeck.

At his funeral, Scottish soloist Jean MacDonald sand a rendition of Robert Louis Stevenson poem ‘Requiem’ and the service was a colourful one- all at Alexanders prior request. Alexander also requested that he be buried in the countryside- and was, being laid to rest on Beinn Breach Mountains. On the day of his funeral, all 14million+ phones in the United States and Canada fell silent for a one minute as a tribute.

My colleagues in the Government join with me in expressing to you our sense of the world’s loss in the death of your distinguished husband. It will ever be a source of pride to our country that the great invention, with which his name is immortally associated, is a part of its history. On the behalf of the citizens of Canada, may I extend to you an expression of our combined gratitude and sympathy.

Then Canadian Prime Minister
Mackenzie King (message to Mabel Bell shortly after death)

The work of Alexander Bell, and his invention of the telephone in particular, would revolutionise both the world of communications and the general world itself. The day he was granted a patent for his device in 1878, March 7th, is today recognised as a unofficial national holiday in the United States and Canada as a mark of tribute to one of the greatest and most important people in the history of the human race. Alongside Andrew Carnegie, Alexander Graham Bell sits at the top of the shelf of Scottish-American greats.


Alexander Graham Bell- Through The Years Gallery


When one door closes, another door opens. But we often look so long and regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones that open for us.

Alexander Graham Bell

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